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Don’t blame the gophers: Thurston County issue not bad as commissioner says

The Mazama Pocket Gopher is considered an endangered species, meaning it can halt development. (U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Pacific Region, Flickr)

Perhaps you remember the endangered Mazama Pocket Gopher, which some say are making it almost impossible to build anything in Thurston County?

The story prompted a lot of outrage and County Commissioner Gary Edwards says rightly so. But officials at the U.S. Department of Fish and Wildlife and others within Thurston County government said the claims didn’t have much basis in reality.

Related: Construction buried under piles of gopher regulations in Thurston County

Thurston County Commission Gary Edwards said this about the gopher problem:

“It’s become so restrictive that it’s killed our economic engine,” Edwards said. “We’ve had many businesses leave the county and those that were intending on coming to the county went elsewhere. So our economic engine has basically been stifled.”

However, a review of public records reveals that property tax revenues have risen every year since 2012 when Endangered Species status was proposed for the infamous gopher. Overall, county revenues have risen as well.

Other county officials denied Commissioner Edwards’ statements on the economy and could not find any records of businesses leaving Thurston County due over the gophers.

When asked specifically about the extent of the problem, and whether it affected all land in Thurston County facing any inspection prior to any development, Commissioner Edwards was quite clear. He even said the process may take up to a year.

“Maybe way more than a year,” Edwards said. “They’re telling people now that if they’re not on the list if they didn’t get on the list last year, they won’t get to them until not this coming summer but the following summer.”

Not so, says Brad Thompson with the U.S. Department of Fish and Wildlife.

“The county, as evidence, receives annually 4,000 applications from folks who receive building permits for different activities,” Thompson said. “They approve about 99 percent of those. And that’s for all kinds of development, including residential, commercial, and a whole host of activities.”

And only 5 to 10 percent of all permit applicants require any inspection at all. For perspective, roughly 1 percent of all permit applicants — around 40 per year — have to mitigate any concerns regarding the gophers. Other county officials also corroborated statistic.

It is true that inspections can take a while, something the county seeks to address.

Commissioner Edwards’ statements further alleged that gopher protections are threatening the safety of school children, citing several Yelm High School students hit by cars in a school entrance off Highway 510.

“It’s just become a nightmare,” Edwards said. “The school wants to build a new access road off of one of the side roads. And it’s all about safety. But because of the gopher inspection process and all of the restrictions that go along with that, we can’t do it.”

According to Fish and Wildlife, no one from the school district has approached the agency to discuss the proposed road.

Related: What are they building around Western Washington?

In fact, no one is barred from developing land that contains gophers, they just have to mitigate and pay for it. Thurston County is developing a Habitat Conservation Plan, which would set a fee schedule for people who want to develop on the gopher’s habitat. It’s something the commissioner says the feds are imposing on them.

“The government has come along and said that it’s going to cost us $150 million to implement this protection process that they want to put in place,” Edwards said.

That plan will cost a whopping $42,000 for a single-family residence, according to Edwards.

“Well, that’s what they said. But that’s so crazy, it can’t be.”

Well, Edwards is right. It can’t be.

“A Habitat Conservation Plan is not required by the Fish and Wildlife Service for people that live in the county,” explained Thompson. “It’s also not required for the county itself. It is a voluntary program and the applicant, in this case, the county, is the one that drives that process.”

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